Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

STEM and the Spirit of Aloha: Partners for Success

February 14, 2008

This is the first post in a two-part entry.

Grassroots efforts are revitalizing the understanding of how STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) applies to everyday life for communities in Hawaii. The journey began in Hilo at the Institute for Astronomy nine months ago when the Charter School Administration Office sponsored a one-day brainstorming session to expand the definition of STEM across Hawaii's communities.

Unfortunately, when we mention STEM projects to businesses to get educational support, they often think it's solely related to scientists in laboratories, as well as robotics, biotech, and technology. The reality is that STEM is integrated into all occupations on the islands at some level. This new reality presents an opportunity for us to educate each community about its future in a global society.

Mike Rota, vice chancellor at Honolulu Community College, has been collecting and disseminating data about the urgent need for systemic reform in preparing students for college, in order to retain them, as they prepare for careers that will pay them cost-of-living wages on the islands. The days of relying on agriculture are over. The pineapple fields near Oahu's North Shore moved a year ago to other islands. Only the small demonstration fields at the Dole Plantation bear witness to the industry that sustained families on Oahu for decades. However, tourism is strong and growing stronger, as Disney invests on Oahu, and over the next decade, almost half of union hotel and tourism workers will retire.

This paradigm shift in employment sectors has triggered concerns among parents about the best way to entice their own sons and daughters to remain on the islands to complete higher education, find satisfying careers, and start their own families. Hawaiian communities value 'ohana (family) above all else. The possibility that parents could be relegated to having long-distance relationships with future grandchildren on the mainland is a strong rallying cry for Hawaiians to join forces in this grassroots STEM endeavor.

The original brainstorming group evolved into a STEM steering committee that planned a strategy for sustainable growth. In October, more than sixty key players in business, education, and industry came to the STEM table for an expanded brainstorming session about what they felt was needed and could be accomplished in Hawaii. We collated these ideas and redistributed them to all attendees for further reflection using Web 2.0 tools to facilitate creativity, collaboration, communication, and consensus.

The STEM grassroots effort in Hawaii has been highly successful for two reasons: First, the spirit of aloha binds its members together to create a better future for their islands. Second, it has key stakeholders who are literate in using Internet technology as a platform for communication, document revision and dissemination, support, and accountability.

At the next STEM gathering, Nainoa Thompson, executive director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, graciously presented a tribute to his longtime friend, Charles Lacy Veach, who flew on space shuttle missions in the early 1990s. Thompson expressed the aloha of STEM to the people at the meeting by sharing how he and Veach had arranged for a short span of radio communication between a canoe being paddled at 5 miles per hour on the ocean and a space shuttle going many thousands times faster in space as an educational experience for families, students, and teachers.

On that shuttle flight, Veach brought an ax -- one passed down to him from his ancestors -- aboard, and as it passed over the Hawaiian Islands, Lacey let the ax float near the window, and he photographed it against the backdrop of the islands from his view in space. Thompson showed this photograph at the meeting, and it affected each person at the session deeply. The corporate leaders understood the message: The friendship between these two Hawaiian individuals led to a valuable partnership that dramatically extended beyond themselves to also benefit students and teachers. How much more could these corporate leaders, using the spirit of aloha, accomplish as a group to aid their schools and communities?

Before the corporate and community leaders left that day, we asked them to sign a framework of commitment. The instructions were to take their copy of the framework back to their companies and organizations, determine a plan of action for support, and identify any other individuals who would add value to their action plan. Then they would reconvene to determine which working group would benefit the most from their time and talents.

Read part two of my account of this effort to promote STEM, and then share your thoughts about it and about similar initiatives you may have participated in or may know about.

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